Sermon: Trying Not To Try

February 10, 2019

The First Parish in Lincoln

Rev. Jenny M. Rankin

Dear Friends

You are on my mind and in my heart as I write this week

I have heard from a number of you who have watched the video by Manish and wanted to talk about it, and I appreciate your being in touch.

From listening to you, I’m aware that there are a wide range of reactions.

For some it was powerful and difficult to watch. Surprise, shock, anger, betrayal, sadness, grief, a whole mixture of different thoughts and emotions.

“A community is people who talk to each other,” said Scott Peck and I’m glad we’ll have the opportunity to talk more about this with one another this afternoon.

I’m glad we will have the skillful and compassionate guidance of Rev. Parisa Parsa. I’ve known her for years and she has helped communities of all different kinds—non-profit, corporate, congregations– to come together over sensitive issues.  To hold differences of opinion with a kind of gentleness and respect.

Today will just be a beginning but I’m grateful for that beginning and

I’m grateful for your presence and participation as we make our way through this part of the journey with respect for one another and for Manish.

This morning, I decided to go in a different direction—

Maybe it was Chinese New Year on Tuesday

Or just my need, in these grey days of February,

To try something completely different!

So this morning– ancient Chinese philosophy, Taoism (Not my comfort zone, let me tell you!)

And more specifically, the notion of “trying NOT to try” which is the title of a book that I stumbled across.

It was a few years ago, a cold wet day that felt like February but I think was actually April.

I’d been listening to the radio in my car as I drove to the hospital to visit a parishioner

I’d just pulled into the parking space–blessedly marked with the blue “Clergy Only” sign–and was reaching to turn off NPR when I heard these words:

“The old reggae song says “Try. Try and try. You’ll succeed at last.”

And we know there can be truth in that.

But we also know that grinding, stressful, pounding effort can turn self-defeating.

My guest today studies philosophy and neuroscience.

He says look to the way of spontaneity.

To the old Chinese philosophers of the Tao and more.  Get in the zone.

Act freely, spontaneously.

And you may find your most productive, creative self.

A Tiger Mom might not get it.

But Yoda would, he says.

This hour On Point:  the Tao of spontaneity, the way of flow.

And trying not to try.”[1]

Trying NOT to try.

Well, I was hooked!

I remember sitting in my car, rain pouring down across the windshield

Listening to the mellifluous tones of a professor from British Columbia talking about his book, Trying Not to Try: Ancient China, Modern Neuroscience and the Art of Spontaneity.

It was Edward Slingerland.

I went home, looked up the interview. Got the book. Dived into the world of ancient China, 3rd to 5th century BCE.


Once upon a time I studied world religions but I can’t say I ever learned much about ancient Chinese philosophy or religion.

I chose Harvard Divinity School as the place I wanted to study because it was a divinity school that prepped people for ordination but it was a lot broader than that.  I had students from all different faiths and it had scholars who were exploring all different religions.

Teachers, business people, social workers, journalists, all kinds of people find their way to study there.  And the graduates find their way to all sorts of careers.

Mid-career business people and journalists mingled with students who were training to be teachers, lawyers, scientists.

I took classes in Hinduism, Sufism the mystical strand of Islam, as well as Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism.   But I never dug into China, its history of philosophy, Confucius or Lao Tzu.

The beauty and terror of being a preacher in a Unitarian Universalist or UCC congregation is that on a Sunday,

You can almost always bet there is someone out there, listening,

Who knows way more about whatever it is you are speaking on!

This is a brand new world to me so I ask your forbearance in advance!

Tell me afterwards where I got it wrong!

To learn more, I turned first to Huston Smith who introduced me (and a lot of the western world) to world religions.

Huston Smith who published a 1958 book on world religions that became a classic,

Was used in college classrooms for 50 years[2]  Republished in 1991 as The World’s Religions, it has over time sold more than 3 million copies.  Stephen Prothero, scholar of religion at BU, calls it the most important book in comparative religion ever written.

In it, Huston Smith says that all the world’s religions express what he calls “The Absolute, which is indescribable.”[3]

But religion for Huston Smith was not just academic.

It was a way of life.

“In his joyful pursuit of enlightenment,” wrote New York Times reporter Dennis Martin”

He meditated with Tibetan Buddhist monks, practiced yoga with Hindu holy men, whirled with ecstatic Sufi Islamic dervishes, chewed peyote with Mexican Indians and celebrated the Jewish Sabbath with a daughter who had converted to Judaism.”[4]

Throughout it all, he taught, wrote dozens of books, held onto the Methodism of his childhood, while also turning to Mecca 5 times a day to pray.

“His favorite prayer was written by a 9-year-old boy whose mother had found it scribbled on a piece of paper beside his bed.

“Dear God,” it said, “I’m doing the best I can.”[5]

So with Huston Smith as my guide, I dived into Taoism.

Huston Smith says that Lao Tzu was born around 604 BC (other scholars disagree and say he is a composite of a number of different people).

There are lots of legends about him and few hard facts.   He lived a simple life in the western part of China. There is only one contemporary portrait of him—the great Confucius kept hearing tales about this strange man and so finally went to see for himself.  He was impressed by Lao Tzu and said he was like a dragon– “enigmatic, larger than life, mysterious.”[6]

All the traditional stories about Lao Tzu end in the same way.

Lao Tzu was growing old.  He became sad at his people’s disinclination to cultivate the natural goodness he advocated.  He wanted to find greater solitude for his closing years.

So he climbed on a water buffalo and rode westward towards what is now Tibet.

When he reached the Hanko pass, the gatekeeper tried to persuade him to turn back.

Lao Tzu refused.

The gatekeeper tried another tack, asking if he would leave some kind of record about his beliefs.

And so the story goes, Lao Tzu retired for three days and returned with a thin little book.

Five thousand characters, entitled Tao Te Ching or The Way and Its Power.

Huston Smith, a scholar of world religions, calls it “a testament to humanity’s at-home-ness in the universe”,

And says “it can be read in half an hour or a lifetime.  It remains to this day the basic text of Taoist thought.”[7]

When you open it up, you see that everything in it revolves around the pivotal concept of Tao which literally means “path” or “way.”  The basic point is to align one’s daily life to the Tao, to the Way of the Universe.

To put your energy and activity and goals in sync with the Way rather than trying to fight it

“To ride its boundless tide

To delight in its flow.”

Well, that sounds good, but how do we actually do this?

I’m not sure.

The question took me back to Professor Slingerland

And his idea that had so intrigued me as I sat in my car in the rain—

“wu wei” or “trying NOT to try.”

“Wu-wei means literally “no doing” or “no trying” but is better translated as “effortless action,” writes Slingerland.

It refers to a state of total ease, in which you become completely lost in what you’re doing, feel no sense of exerting effort, and yet everything works out perfectly.

When you are in wu-wei, you are maximally effective in the way you move through the world and you emerge from the experience feeling relaxed and satisfied.”

When we are in this state, there is a quality about us— a kind of charisma that the Chinese called “de” or “duh” (as in “no duh”)

“We like spontaneous ease in others and tend to trust and be attracted to those who exhibit it.”

Wu-wei is very much like the feeling of being “in the zone” that athletes describe,

Or what you experience when you go into a job interview or date feeling completely relaxed and confident, and everything just falls into place.”[8]

According to Slingerland, “wu wei” was important to both Confucians and Taoists.  Their debate is about how to get there.

Have same goal—wu wei–:  their debate is about how to get there.

They all think you are not there now.

They all think you have to change.

The debate is how to do this.

Confucians think you have to try really hard for a really long time.

So the Confucians think you have to practice ritual, memorize classics, dress a certain way, listen to certain music. Rigorous adherence to rules, traditions, rituals,

And after years and years of this kind of intense practice, the training drops away and you’re able to experience “wu wei”

But is this authentic “wu wei?”

“No,” said the Taoists.  “You’ve got it all wrong!”

Taoists did not strive.

Instead, they tried to liberate the natural virtue within–

Rejecting materialism and the technology of their age, they went back to the land

Literally going into the countryside where they lived simply

And farmed simply

Pulling their plows by hand instead of using oxen.

Slingerland calls them “the original hippies, dropping out, turning on, and stickin’ it to the Man more than 2,000 years before the invention of tie-dye and the Grateful Dead.”[9]


So “wu wei”—whatever method we use to try to get there, it’s a fascinating concept to me


You have to know it goes against every grain of my New England upbringing!

Goes against that tough Yankee thing we are schooled in, those of us that come from this part of the world.

The Protestant work ethic

Put your shoulder to the wheel

Slog on through.

I grew up in the “try and try again” school of thought.

One of my mother’s favorite expressions, when we were kids and would do something and fail and start to get frustrated was “if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.”   I can still hear her sing-song voice in my head!

And my father hadn’t made it through the various losses of his life—his mother’s death when he was six, losing the family farm, losing friends in the war, the early death of his first wife, he didn’t make it through that without a pretty hefty ability to “try and try again.”

So I grew up in that school and it pretty much worked for me.  Good grades in school, good reviews on the job.

So this Taoist idea—trying NOT to try—somehow aligning yourself with the fundamental way of the universe—this is all new for me.

One thing I learned– this does NOT mean we do NOTHING.  It does not mean we sit back and just expect everything to magically fall into place.  In fact, almost the opposite.  It requires years of discipline.

You practice, you train, you learn skills—think of an athlete practicing basketball drills, a jazz musician putting in hours of practice, a writer getting up at 5 am day after day—

So you practice, you train, you hone your skills, but then,

The moment comes when you step back and let go.

You get to the moment—whatever it is for you—playing music, snowboarding, open heart surgery—

You get to that moment,

And try to shut off your conscious mind

Let all that practice and training and experience just kind of take over,

You slip into some other unconscious realm—

You’re in the flow

In the zone.

Time drops away–


At ease

That is “wu wei”

The ancient Chinese philosophers and modern psychologists say we need to pay attention to those places in our lives.

Because spending more time there,

and less time with the “to do” lists, can make us happier people.

Whether for you,  it’s digging in the garden, chopping and sautéing in the kitchen, painting in the studio, sewing, running,

At the potter’s wheel or on your road bike,

At the piano or on the ice.

I have a friend who is the head of a small non-profit.

It’s a demanding job–long hours, plenty of stress.

For him it’s getting on his bike and he logs the miles with the best of them.

There’s something for him about being on the road,

The spin of the wheels,

The feel of the wind on his face,

His friends to the left and right of him.

Now, you and I might look at him, biking to Mount Wachuset and back on a Thursday morning before work, and think “heck that’s a lot of work, that’s a lot of effort.”

But for him?

It’s the place in his life where for a little bit of time, things get simple.

Everything just drops away.

Just him, the bike, the wind, the friends, the road.

He’s in the flow.

That’s “wu wei,” the Chinese would say.


What is it that T.S. Eliot says about returning to the place where we started and knowing it, as if for the first time ever?

My explorations into Taoism leads me, in the end, back to my own beloved Christian contemplative tradition—

The way of Thomas Merton, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, the Quakers and all the rest.

Merton who I first encountered back at Harvard Divinity School when I wrote a paper about how he, as a Christian contemplative monk, explored Buddhism.  In the weeks just before his death, Merton travelled to stand in awe before the great stone Buddha statues in Sri Lanka and was able to visit in person with a very young Dalai Lama, with whom corresponded for years.

There is something in this ancient Chinese wisdom that reminds me of Christian truths.  I think of Pierre Guibert, the French writer, whose book  “Resdiscovering Prayer” fell into my lap.

After many years of being completely away from prayer, kind of in a spiritual desert, he writes about his arduous journey back, trying to get back to some kind of contemplative spiritual discipline.

It was only when he stopped trying to force it, Guibert writes,

When he realized that his prayer life was not a matter of his own will

Was not something he could force or control

That it began to flow.

All he had to do was get his butt in the chair, show up at the appointed time and place and God would do the rest.  “I wasn’t always faithful,” he said, “but God was.  And that was enough.”

I’m still a total novice in this Chinese philosophy stuff.   But I’ve loved my little exploration, loved coming across this idea of trying NOT to try!

Who knows?

Maybe I’ll have to put my stoic Yankee ways aside for a bit

And give it a spin!

But perhaps we can try to notice those moments in our lives where we catch ourselves “letting go” and slipping into spontaneity.

Notice those places where time sort of “drops away”

Our sense of self or ego drops away

We may be “working” at something (gardening, studying in the library) but it feels effort-less

The ancient Chinese philosophers and modern psychologists like the man who wrote the 1990 book FLOW

Would have us pay more attention to those places

Because spending a little more time there,

And less time with the “to do” lists,

Can make us happier people.

Perhaps for you it is in listening to music


Playing with paint


Cooking music plants crafts

On the drum set or on the ice

A pen and paper, a camera in the hand,

It could be pottering around with houseplants

Chopping and sautéing in the kitchen

On the piano, at the mike

A book in the hand

Pen and paper

Paints and an easel

Who knows?

Outside with a camera

I have a friend who says he loses himself at the potter’s wheel, time just drops away as he shapes the clay with his fingers

I have a friend with a stressful job as head of a non-profit that’s

For him it’s getting on his bike and he logs the miles with the best of them.

There’s something for him about being on the road, the spinning of the wheel, the feel of the wind, his friends left and right of him

You and I might look at him,

Biking to Mount Wachuset and back on a Thursday morning before work, and think “heck that’s a lot of work, that’s a lot of effort.”

But for him?

It’s the place in his life where for a little bit of time, things get simple.

The stress drops away.

No effort.

Jut him and the bike and the wind and the friends.

In the flow.

The ancient Chinese called it “wu wei.”

I find parallels in the Christian contemplative tradition with which I am more familiar

All of this exploration sends me back to Thomas Merton who I also discovered as a student in divinity school

A contemplative monk in the wilds of Kentucky Merton developed a lifelong fascination with Eastern religious traditions

In the last months of his life, granted special permission to travel to Asia to give a lecture, he met the young Dalai Lama and stood transfixed before massive statues of the Buddha in Sri Lanka

Pierre Guibert who wrote a thin little book called “Rediscovering Prayer” which I stumbled across in a library on Iona

Writes about how his arduous journey back to a life of prayer

After being without it for so many years

It was only when he stopped trying to force it

When he realized it wasn’t a matter of his will, power, control

That it began to flow

All he had to do was get his butt in the chair, show up at the appointed time and place

Let God work in him.

Then, things began to flow.

“I wasn’t always faithful” he wrote but “God was faithful, and that was enough.”

There is something in this ancient Chinese wisdom that reminds me of Christian truths.

I’m still a novice in this world of ancient China but there’s something here that draws me–

“wu wei”

“trying not to try”

Maybe I’ll have to put my Yankee ways aside,

Just for a little bit

And give it a spin!

[1] Interview with Edward Slingerland, “On Point” WBUR radio, April 2, 2014. Accessed at: on Feb 6, 2019.

[2] Huston Smith, The Religions of Man (1958) republished in 1991 as The World’s Religions.

[3] [3] Obituary, Huston Smith, The New York Times, Jan 1, 2017, written by Dennis Martin and Dennis Hevesijan. Accessed on Jan 20, 2018 at

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Huston Smith, The Illustrated World’s Religions:  A guide to our Wisdom Traditions, United Kingdom: Labyrinth Publishing, 1986.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Interview with Edward Slingerland, “On Point” WBUR radio, April 2, 2014. Accessed at: on Feb 6, 2019.

[9] Slingerland, Trying Not to Try, p.

Copyright Jenny Rankin 2019